A newly hired correctional officer was fired by the state Department of Corrections (DOC) after wearing a “Black Lives Matter” shirt to work in response to several other officers wearing “Police Lives Matter” shirts, according to a federal lawsuit.
Enow-Tambong Agbor-Baiyee sued the DOC in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington on Nov. 28, alleging his firing constitutes racial discrimination and retaliation.
Agbor-Baiyee, who is Black, was hired in May as an on-call correctional officer at Airway Heights Corrections Center in Spokane County, and started a six-week training program along with dozens of other new hires.
During the first week, a DOC instructor wore a T-shirt with the slogan “Police Lives Matter.” In a written evaluation of the training, Agbor-Baiyee objected to the shirt as inappropriate, according to the lawsuit.
The DOC did not respond to Agbor-Baiyee’s complaint, but he started experiencing retaliation from DOC instructors, including random searches and “false claims about misbehavior and rules violations,” the lawsuit alleges.
Over the next several weeks, Agbor-Baiyee’s lawsuit says, at least six trainees wore similar “Police Lives Matter” shirts to class on a daily basis.
“At no point did any DOC employee inform any students that their clothing was inappropriate for the setting or that they could not wear shirts with text or political statements,” the lawsuit states.
On the Monday of his fifth week of training, Agbor-Baiyee wore a shirt that read “Black Lives Matter.” He was immediately pulled aside by a supervisor, who told him that the shirt was “inappropriate and ‘inciting’ and that he could not wear it to class,” according to the lawsuit.
The next day, Agbor-Baiyee said he and the rest of the trainee class were told by DOC instructors that employees and trainees could no longer wear T-shirts with any text or logos.
Agbor-Baiyee asked why students had been allowed to wear Police Lives Matter shirts for several weeks, but all slogan-bearing shirts were banned after he wore his Black Lives Matter shirt once, according to the lawsuit.
An instructor, Federico Anguiano, responded “by admitting that DOC had problems with discrimination and racism” and shared incidents he’d personally experienced, but, told Agbor-Baiyee not to take it personally “as there was nothing that could be done,” the lawsuit states.
The next Monday, on June 22, Agbor-Baiyee was pulled out of training and fired. When Agbor-Baiyee asked why, he was told he “was not a fit for DOC and causing a lot of problems” but not given any specifics, according to the lawsuit.
Susan Biller, a DOC spokeswoman, confirmed Agbor-Baiyee’s brief employment, but said in an email the department does not comment on pending litigation.
DOC policy generally requires on-duty correctional officers to wear specific uniforms, but Biller said “we do not have an agency policy that prohibits clothing with text/political slogans.”
Displays of the Black Lives Matter or BLM logo have touched off controversies in workplaces across the country.
Some employers prohibit any BLM and other political messaging or non-company logos at work, while others have encouraged such displays in support of the BLM movement and the fight against systemic racism.
Starbucks, the Seattle-based global coffee chain, initially banned BLM logos in June but reversed that decision amid a wave of criticism.
Agbor-Baiyee declined an interview request through his attorney, Spencer Thal, who said the lawsuit speaks for itself.
The lawsuit seeks a finding that Agbor-Baiyee was wrongfully fired, as well as back pay and reinstatement to his job, or pay and benefits in lieu of reinstatement.